WASHINGTON (Jan. 16, 2021)—A scientific study published today finds that hypersonic missiles will not offer the United States significant new military capabilities because they are slower and more susceptible to detection than the country’s existing ballistic missile systems.
The peer-reviewed study published in Science & Global Security, an international journal based at Princeton University, analyzes the operational capability of hypersonic missiles currently under development by the U.S. Department of Defense at a cost of $3.2 billion over the next year and billions more in the years to come.
The study refutes widespread claims about the speed and detectability of hypersonic missiles. Using computational modeling, the study finds that hypersonic gliders deliver weapons more slowly than ballistic missiles during intercontinental flights due to drag effects and can be detected by space-based infrared sensors because they remain hot throughout the duration of their atmospheric flight. In addition, their ability to maneuver is more limited than typically claimed.
“Hypersonic missiles are not the revolutionary technology they’re claimed to be,” said Dr. Cameron Tracy, co-author of the research study and Kendall Fellow for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “The United States is spending vast sums of money on these new weapons that will perform worse, in many ways, than the ballistic missiles we already have.”
Interest in this technology, driven in part by widespread but erroneous claims, could reduce national security by spurring a hypersonic arms race.
“The race to develop hypersonic weapons is driving a costly competition among the United States, Russia, and China, heightening international tensions that may undermine broader arms control efforts and increase the likelihood of conflict,” said the study’s co-author Dr. David Wright, the former co-director of the UCS Global Security Program who is currently a research affiliate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
With no clear military justification for these weapons, the study’s authors recommend that Congress and the incoming Biden administration curtail research and development spending on hypersonic missiles that now involves at least six programs across the Defense Department.
“Hypersonic missiles don’t perform as advertised,” said Tracy. “In an era of increasing demands on economic resources due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States can’t afford to buy weapons that won’t make the nation any safer and will drive a dangerous arms race.”